B.B. King

The King of the Blues died last week. He was 89.

Whenever somebody in the public eye dies these days, the tributes spill forth so readily. With Twitter making it very easy now for newspapers to fill column inches with quotes from every Tom, Dick and Harry, it often seems artificial, as though half these people are more concerned with being seen to be upset, rather than feeling any real sorrow. They throw around platitudes that make you cringe; everyone’s a “legend” now, apparently. But B.B. was a legend. He was a hero. He seemed to be a gentleman, too. One that oozed charisma and, for all his fame and fortune, somehow stayed humble and hungry. A consummate professional, someone who lived life with a smile on his face, whose jovial personality made audiences feel at ease in the presence of a damn fine musician.

He said he just wanted to make people happy – and that he did.

The tributes to him since his death on Thursday have been so genuine and touching. Little wonder when you find out more about the life he led and remind yourself how he kept on performing as he pushed 90, complete with his trademark Gibson guitar, sparkly jacket and always with a wide, beaming smile on his face.

From those who knew him best and those who simply enjoyed listening to him play and sing, they spoke of his immediately recognisable guitar tone, of course, the perfect notes, and how they wanted to be like him, as well as the warmth he exuded, which really does come through both on stage and in interviews. We know how his guitars came to be called Lucille, of his love for Sinatra, that many of those who went to see U2 after Rattle and Hum, at that time arguably the biggest band on the planet, quickly realised that the brightest star shining from the stage was B.B. during ‘When Love Comes to Town’.

You might recall David telling Jools Holland on one of his Hootenanny shows that his New Year’s Resolution for 1998 was “to keep practicing until I get as good as B.B.” (Don’t worry, he still is.)

Born Riley B. King in September 1925, on a cotton plantation near the town of Itta Bena, Mississippi, he lived alone in a shack at the age of nine, toiling as a farmhand to repay the debts of his dead mother and grandmother for four long, lonely years. Just imagine that.

As “The Beale Street Blues Boy” – rather sensibly shortened to B.B. – his first hit was ‘3 O’Clock Blues’, which topped the Billboard Rhythm and Blues charts in 1952, staying there for five weeks.

The numbers from then on are astounding: the 42 studio albums, from 1956’s Singin’ the Blues to One Kind Favor in 2008; the 15 Grammy Awards (to think he received the Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987, the same year he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – that’s nearly thirty years ago – speaks volumes about how hard he has worked since then); the hundreds of live performances each year (a pilot, he flew himself to many of them and made a point of regularly performing in prisons) – an estimated 15,000-plus live gigs in all.

There have been too many notable collaborations to list them all here, but it would be nice to find out which are your favourites. I’d also love to know if you saw him perform or ever met him.

A film of his life, called The Life of Riley, came out in 2012 to great critical acclaim. Have you seen it?

After picking cotton for 75 cents a day, singing gospel on street corners for small change, witnessing a lynching and living through racial segregation, the great-grandson of a slave influenced the very finest white musicians, so captivated by the Delta and Chicago blues, whose fondness for him warms the heart. He had a remarkable life.

Here’s a live version of ‘The Thrill Is Gone’ from 1993. Who, with ambitions of music-making, wouldn’t like fingers as “stupid” as his?

Author: FEd

Features Editor of David Gilmour’s official blog, The Blog (‘Features’ previously being its rather naff title), affectionately – or lazily – shortened to ‘FEd’.

30 thoughts on “B.B. King”

  1. I saw him play twice. Once was in Portland, OR in the mid- 1990s and once was in Albany, NY, around 1998 or 99. On both occasions, it seemed to me that talent like that does not come along by accident. There has to be something inspired, something supernatural, something greater than life itself, to make that kind of magic.

    1. Oh, lucky you, Dan. I’ve been cursing myself for never going to see him in concert. As you say, he made magic.

  2. The only guitarist who could play one note which meant more than a hundred played by modern fast players..incredible talent.

  3. I never saw him live, unfortunately.

    I’d like to share a video of the Man, playing along with the ‘new generation’ of guitarist…looking at Derek Trucks and saying: “That’s about as good as I’ve ever heard it.”

    What a King. Ciao BB.

  4. I wish I had seen him also, to see the magic in person. He was truly special. A true Gentleman.

    RIP

  5. It is so sad to really lose a legend like BB King. I first saw BB King at the Shrine auditorium in ’69 and then in Portland I saw him again when he turn 80 and the sound was still great. This man had soul and he loved people. He will truly be missed.

    Take care, Thomas

    1. He will be missed, but definitely remembered with a smile. Come to think of it, I don’t believe I’ve ever read or heard a bad word said about him. In a 60-year career, that’s some achievement.

  6. Let’s hope we can keep David playin till he’s 90.

    RIP BB.

    Damian

  7. I was fortunate to have seen him play a couple of times. Once was during 1997/98-ish where he had Peter Green in support. And again a few years later when John Mayall was the support.

    But over the years, and from different gigs I have attended, I have heard BB King tunes performed by groups like Stan Webb’s Chicken Shack to the Robin Trower band.

    1. In your pre amble above Fed you mention the 1998 Jools Holland show.

      Sure that David played on a BB King album from that time called Deuces Wild (or something like that).

      1. That’s exactly right – on the track ‘Cryin’ Won’t Help You, Babe’ (along with Paul Carrack). It’s an album, from 1997, of collaborations featuring the likes of Eric Clapton, Jools Holland, Van Morrison, Joe Cocker and several others.

        On the 1997/8 Hootenanny, David joined Jools Holland and B.B. to perform ‘Eyesight To the Blind’.

  8. … never had a chance to see him live but hey, his guitar playing is going to live eternally. Somehow I have the feeling that too many of the artists I looked up to, are passing away, too fast. We’re getting older, aren’t we?

    Taki

  9. Lucky to have seen BB a couple of times in the mid to late eighties and early nineties. It was in the Stadium in Dublin, where David played the first gig of the About Face tour.

    The man has a sound all his own. I remember his band had a 3-man horn section and the trumpet player never stopped grooving between notes. They were great gigs.

    Rest in peace Blues Boy.

    Tom B – Dublin

  10. Pavarotti & B.B. King

    Two legends, an unlikely duet…

    What a weird, but interesting, fascinating combination!

    Awesome? Awful? Embarrassing? Hilarious?

    Personally, I think it works, I like it but I must be biased, I love Pavarotti, even if he doesn’t get the blues. 😉

    Anyway, hats off to both of them, I think it was for a good cause, to raise money for the children of Kosovo.

    1. It works for me.

      Pavarotti was brilliant, too. Another giant who lived life with a smile on his face.

      1. It’s a bit so-so for me – but a sort of proof that to my ears at least the gut wins over the diaphragm every time … but I agree, hats off because both very much from the heart …

        But did you listen on (to the YouTube trail) because James Brown and Pavarotti makes for a very interesting duet …

    2. Those Pink Floyd girls doing Great Gig in the Sky really started something . . . eh?

      ash

  11. I saw BB King perform with Gary Moore as support. I loved the show. 😀

    I had the opportunity to see him again a few years later but I think I had tickets to see someone else the same night. 🙁 I don’t even remember who and I regret not going to see BB King again.

    ash

  12. I have mentioned this before and may I iterate. A young and up and coming legend in his hayday got to meet this legend in Vancouver to open the show with B.B.

    He was practising outside his door when lo and behold The King heard and welcomed him. That man was Jeff Healey.

    I never got to see BB but his music will live on.

    Can you imagine BB, Jeff, and Sachmo together at last?

    Hallelujah!!!!

  13. I like B.B. King Ft. David Gilmour – Eyesight To The Blind.

    Like how B.B. King looks at David Gilmour. Without his usual smile, which says an approval, encouragement for white bluesmen. That his look at David says the recognition. ‘This guy is as much good in blues as me’, King thinks.

  14. Some great pics of Roger and Nick at the plaque unveiling. Originally Westminster University.

    And I’m still being blown away by The Endless River. It’s what we do, magic. Wish we could learn more on how this album was put together as I think it is truly up there with Wish You Were Here, Animals, Dark Side Of The Moon.

    Damian

  15. Train tickets down to London, 320 miles, and they cost more than the whole trip to Verona. Rip off Britain as usual.

    Damian

    1. I’ve long since given up on trains – they seem to be heroically uneconomic. You’re better off hitch-hiking but always ask to see the contents of the boot first in case there’s gaffer tape and an axe in there.

  16. BBC4 11.00pm – BB King: The Life of Riley – a moving tribute to an exceptional and gifted man!

  17. I’ve seen him three times and still think that he was much closer to perfection (sound, notes, etc.) than most other guitarists. And yet he was so humble about his abilities… RIP, B.B.

    PS: That Dave/BB duet on Deuces Wild is odd… why didn’t Dave sing? And why is his playing so stiff? Scared of f’ng up? I probably would have been as well!

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